The impressionist instant emerged in an era of wholesale changes in the measurement and meaning of time. Claude Monet’s (1840–1926) abrupt, expressive, and self-referential handling of paint and his carefree attitude toward traditional rules of composition are the telling inverse of significant period advances in synchronized and standardized time measures, developments with profound effects on how time has been lived and experienced since the mid-19th century. Arguing for an aesthetics of instantaneity as an outgrowth—a beautification even—of the dulling cultures of the routinized minute, my project traces the evolution of modern art to what were then seismic shifts in the shape of time itself. To that end, I offer new interpretations of key works by Monet, stretching from the beginnings of impressionism in the 1860s to his painting in series in the 1890s, seen through the lens of modern conceptions and infrastructures of time. These stretch the gamut from psychology to technology, or from the “now-time” of consciousness (what William James called the “specious present”) to the national and global time standards that were newly established during Monet’s lifetime. Pointing beyond the instant as impressionism’s favored temporality, my aim is to portray the style as profoundly in thrall to the modernization and industrialization of time itself, rather than a mere representation of the natural times of sunsets, wintry weather, and morning mists.
Monet’s version of impressionism sought, even if incompletely, to make represented time and the time of representation coterminous. With his seemingly quick and unpolished touch, it is frequently said, he and many other impressionists gave the modern cultures of speed their first appropriately modernist forms. Monet’s impressionism evinced an acute awareness of the particularly modern pressures of time. It chronicled constant shifts in weather, the seasons, and the time of day, while heroizing new practices of leisure time. But since time is a visually elusive category that hardly has a specific iconography or set of codified representations (except in allegorical characters like Chronos or the shape of a clockface), Monet’s swift-seeming handling of paint became a crucial way in which time itself could receive modern figuration. Precisely because these features of impressionism are so well known, art historians have rarely paused to interrogate the concrete histories and technologies of time (and timekeeping) that underwrote impressionism’s seismic stylistic shifts, or to inquire into the links between “quickening” brushwork and the 19th century’s industrialization of time. This is especially remarkable given that key scientific events in the measurement of modern time—the advent of quantifiable, psychophysiological time in the 1850s–1860s, as well as the invention of “universal” time centered on the Greenwich meridian in the mid-1880s—overlap so precisely with the history of French impressionism. My book project sets out to deliver such a study, proposing an intimate correlation between the period’s fascination with the instant—including representations of time in easel painting, film, and visual culture—and its concurrent regulation of time.